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In this April 19, 2019, photo, people pass by the Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry in Beijing. China on Wednesday said it had revoked the press credentials of three reporters for The Wall Street Journal over a headline for an opinion column deemed by the government to be racist and slanderous.

The Associated Press

The Chinese government is expelling three Wall Street Journal reporters from the country in anger over a headline that Beijing had demanded the newspaper change.

The reporters – deputy bureau chief Josh Chin and correspondents Chao Deng and Philip Wen – are respected journalists who have written about the expansion of China’s surveillance state and Beijing’s attempts to exert foreign influence. They have been given five days to leave the country, China bureau chief Jonathan Cheng said in a statement reported by the newspaper.

None of the three had any connection to an opinion article or its headline – “China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia“ – which enraged authorities as the country battles the spread of a deadly virus. Government spokespeople and scholars had lambasted the headline since its publication on Feb. 3.

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“The Chinese people do not welcome those media that speak racially discriminatory language and maliciously slander and attack China,” Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Wednesday. He accused the newspaper of “parrying and dodging its responsibility. It has neither issued an official apology nor informed us of what it plans to do with the persons involved.”

The expulsions came after the U.S. State Department said Tuesday that it would reclassify the U.S. operations of five Chinese news organizations – Xinhua News Agency, China Radio International, China Global Television Network and the distributors of China Daily and People’s Daily – as foreign missions, which requires them to file reports of their personnel and to register property.

In a statement, William Lewis, the publisher of The Wall Street Journal, said the paper’s “opinion pages regularly publish articles with opinions that people disagree – or agree – with, and it was not our intention to cause offense with the headline on the piece. However, this has clearly caused upset and concern amongst the Chinese people, which we regret.”

But he said the expulsion of the journalists “greatly hinders” the newspaper’s ability to cover China and requested the reinstatement of visas for the three correspondents.

The Journal has not amended the opinion article, by columnist and Bard College foreign-policy scholar Walter Russell Mead, who said on Twitter that he had no part in writing the headline. He argued in the article that “China’s financial markets are probably more dangerous in the long run than China’s wildlife markets,” the latter blamed as the source of the COVID-19 virus, which has now killed more than 2,000 people in the country. The world’s second-largest economy, he wrote, “is as ripe as a country can be for a massive economic correction,” citing problems with overheated property markets, industrial overcapacity and state lending.

The Journal has used the term “sick man” numerous times over the years to describe Europe, the Philippines, the pharmaceutical company Valeant, Turkey, France and others.

But in China, where internet censors bar access to The Wall Street Journal, the headline was translated into Mandarin and circulated by state media and on social media, where it sparked memories of a past that Chinese leaders have called the “century of humiliation.”

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“’The sick man of Asia’ was used during the late 19th and early 20th centuries when foreign countries partially colonized China. This phrase is derogatory and inappropriate,” wrote William Cen Lam, from Shanghai, in a letter published by the Journal.

The publication of the term suggests that, ”even in the 21st century, some U.S. officials and elites, deep down in their hearts, still understand the world in the framework of a feudal overlord and a colony,” Shen Yi, a politics professor at Shanghai’s Fudan University, told Chinese state media. “With the relative decline of U.S. power and China’s rapid development, those people find it more urgent to display and vent their sense of superiority.”

China in recent years has become more assertive in its demands for compliance from companies and media organizations outside its borders. Hotels and airlines have been forced to adopt Beijing-approved language on Taiwan and Hong Kong. A growing number of foreign correspondents have been placed on severely truncated visa terms after publishing reports Chinese authorities considered unfavourable.

The three Journal correspondents bring to at least nine the number of reporters expelled from China since 2013, many by simply not renewing their visas. China had not forcibly expelled a journalist since 1998, and there is no modern precedent for such a mass expulsion, even after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.

China expelled another Journal reporter, Chun Han Wong, last year by not renewing his visa. He and Mr. Wen had reported on a cousin of Chinese President Xi Jinping, Ming Chai, who has been under investigation in Australia amid larger probes into organized crime, money laundering and allegations of Chinese influence-peddling.

Expelling the Journal reporters “is an egregious violation of freedom of expression,” said William Nee, vice-president of PEN Hong Kong.

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“In a moment in which the world is asking questions about whether China’s narrative of fighting the coronavirus can be trusted, and in which China is detaining citizen journalists, this sends a dangerous signal that the Chinese government intends to limit the ability of the foreign press to report on the fight against the virus and the economic impact it is having.”

Chinese authorities have endured withering domestic criticism for their handling of the COVID-19 outbreak. The expulsion of foreign reporters amounts to “blaming the outside world for what the Chinese cannot handle properly themselves,” said Willy Lam, an expert in Chinese politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Mr. Xi “feels threatened,” Mr. Lam said. ”So he’s very anxious to prevent more criticism of his handling of the crisis.”

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